Friday, 6 January 2012

When Broken Glass Floats: Chanrithy Him (Cambodia)

This was the first book that I read in 2012, and the first since I officially began this challenge, also at the start of the year.

Chanrithy Him was born in Takeo province, Cambodia in 1965, and so is the same age as myself. She lives in Oregon, USA and currently works as a public speaker, Cambodian classical dancer, writer, and aspiring screenwriter. She holds a B.S. in biochemistry from the University of Oregon. She also worked as a Research Associate to the Khmer Adolescent Project, a major PTSD study on Cambodian youths who survived the Khmer Rouge era. Partly as a result of this project, Chanrithy felt compelled to tell her own tale of surviving life under the KhmerRouge in a way "worthy of the suffering which I endured as a child."

In the Cambodian proverb, "when broken glass floats" is the time when evil triumphs over good. That time began in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia and the Him family began their trek through the hell of the "killing fields." In a mesmerizing story, Him vividly recounts a Cambodia where rudimentary labor camps are the norm and technology, such as cars and electricity, no longer exists. Death becomes a companion at the camps, along with illness. Yet through the terror, Chanrithy's family remains loyal to one another despite the Khmer Rouge's demand of loyalty only to itself. Moments of inexpressible sacrifice and love lead them to bring what little food they have to the others, even at the risk of their own lives. In 1979, "broken glass" finally sinks. From a family of twelve, only five of the Him children survive. Sponsored by an uncle in Oregon, they begin their new lives in a land that promises welcome to those starved for freedom.

I found this be a powerful and very compelling book, which although disturbing for much of the time, was also strangely fascinating. One of the things that I am most looking forward to about this challenge is the opportunity to learn about different cultures and ways of thinking, so this was a great place in which to start.

This is in many ways a tale of two diametrically opposed upbringings - it tells on the one hand of an intelligent young girl prior to the conflict, with hopes and dreams, the same as any other girl of the same age, with plentiful food, a loving family and safe roof over her head. On the other hand, it also tells of a girl who after the conflict, was wrenched from her home and everything that she knew, and effectively had her childhood stolen. Forced to live in a hut on a a series of communal farms which became known as the 'killing fields', while those around her dropped like flies from completely preventable diseases - including half of her own family. We complain about our lot in this country, but really we have no idea.

It is impossible to read a book like this and not feel touched, touched by the sadness and the depth of emotions that this story brings to the surface. It is not about anger, but about trying to understand and come to terms with how something like this could ever be allowed to happen, and happen it has, not just in Cambodia, but in countless regions and in countless eras throughout history - the Jewish Holocaust, the Rwanda/Burundi genocide, the Balkans conflicts, I am sure there are many more examples. It is difficult when you read books such as this, to know exactly what you feel. One thing that I do know is that Ms Him is a remarkable person who has done a great service to the world.

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